Did Nobel Prize Committee Make a Mistake or Was it an Oversight in Awarding This Year’s Prize in Chemistry?

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Kaplesh Kumar

BOSTON–The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences this year awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2019 to three scientists for the development of lithium-ion batteries: John B. Goodenough, the University of Texas at Austin; M. Stanley Whittingham, Binghamton University, State University of New York; and Akira Yoshino, Asahi Kasei Corporation and Meijo University, Japan.

This lightweight, rechargeable and powerful battery is now used in everything from mobile phones to laptops and electric vehicles. It can also store significant amounts of energy from solar and wind power, making possible a fossil fuel-free society, according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Kaplesh Kumar, an IIT Kanpur graduate who holds Sc.D degree from MIT, has a question:  Did the Chemistry Nobel Prize Committee make a mistake or was it simply an oversight or they did not look deep enough?

“History has been re-written in the awarding of the 2019 Chemistry Nobel Prize to the developers of the Li-ion battery on the basis that the Li-ion battery had established a rechargeable world,” Mr. Kumar says. “Completely ignored in the process, with no acknowledgement or even mere mention, has been the Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) battery that had already created a billion dollar “rechargeable world” before Li ion, enabling widespread applications, among them laptops, hybrid and electric vehicles, power tools, cell phones, and various consumer electronics.”

He said the NiMH battery too was everywhere. Indeed, Toyota’s electric car, Prius, had been using the NiMH battery until it recently switched to the Li-ion battery.

He added that because of its lighter weight and higher energy density, the Li ion battery has replaced the NiMH battery in a many applications; the change, however, has come with a significant safety risk.

Around the turn of the century, as reported by CNN, the Lemelson-MIT program had clubbed the NiMH and Li ion batteries together in its list of the most important inventions of the prior quarter century.

“The Nobel Prize Committee has, instead, recognized only one, and completely ignored the other equally pathbreaking technology, which too has impacted society in large measure across the globe and continues to make its presence felt,” Mr. Kumar said.  “My work on the NiMH battery in the late 1970s and early 1980s at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, Inc. was akin to that of Akira Yoshino, this year’s Nobel laureate, in rendering the NiMH battery commercially viable. I invented the hydrogen storage electrode alloy used in the NiMH batteries (U.S. Patent 4,565,686), a development that was erroneously credited to a later patentee, who has since passed away,” said Mr. Kumar.

The NiMH battery was first demonstrated at the Phillips Laboratory, Eindhoven, Netherlands around the mid-1970s with electrodes made of crystalline RETM5 (RE= Rare Earth, TM = Transition metal) alloys, notably LaNi5), he said.

“My own extensive involvement with the RETM5 alloys dates back to my doctoral thesis at MIT in the early 1970s, investigating their magnetic behavior,” said Mr. Kumar.

Mr. Kumar said that he was the original NiMH battery alloy inventor was confirmed in 2003, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit noting that, “[in] the early 1980s, Kumar discovered that the use of certain rare earth-transition metal alloys to store hydrogen in rechargeable nickel metal hydride batteries would overcome the inevitable fracturing associated with repeated recharging. Prior art alloys had a crystalline molecular structure, meaning that their molecules were arranged in a regular repeating pattern. These prior art crystalline alloys degraded severely with the repeated cycles of hydrogen storage and release that accompanied recharging. Kumar found that certain alloys with a less ordered molecular structure were immune to material fracture and had improved hydrogen storage capacity.”  Kumar v. Ovonic Battery Company, Inc., 351 F.3d 1364 (Fed. Cir. 2003).

“It may be that the NiMH battery was removed from consideration by the Nobel Prize Committee due to the misattribution of the hydrogen storage electrode alloy inventorship, as that person was no longer alive,” said Mr. Kumar. “As I explain above, this should not have been the reason for the omission of the NiMH battery in the announcement of the Nobel Prize. Since both batteries have been considered at par in merit and impact, some post award due recognition of the NiMH battery and my contribution as the original inventor would seem to be duly deserved.”

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